As David Beagley, lecturer in children’s literature at La Trobe points out, the word ‘surrealism’ has a different use in everyday English from its meaning in critical discourse.
Surrealism in everyday English: I don’t understand it. Weird somehow. Creepy. Like a dream. Disparate things are together and don’t make sense.
Surrealism in critical discourse: Over and above. Literally, super-real (from French).
‘Surreal’ is a modern word and does indeed mean, correctly, what everyone thinks it means.
The word ‘surrealism’ , however, existed before ‘surreal’, which is a back formation because an adjectival form comes in handy. ‘Surreal’ has been around since the 1930s and took off in the 1950s.
In other words, ‘super-real’ art tells us the ‘super-truth’. It’s all connected to Freudian ideas about dreams meaning something.
The work of Anthony Browne and other postmodern artists are said to be surrealist.
Shaun Tan has this to say about the word as applied to his work:
I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the term ‘surrealism’, despite often using it as a shorthand to introduce my own books. I don’t have a strong interest in dreams per se, or the irrational, the way the capital-S Surrealists championed so brilliantly. I’m more interested in some kind of equivalent to reality, in itself quite rational and meaningful but just different to what we might be expecting. Perhaps post-colonial societies have a special feeling for weirdness that is not actually surrealism but to do with something far more conscious, just unresolved or hard to reconcile — a problem of reality.”
Considering The Rabbits, for example, Tan suggests that the psychological upheaval of the collision between European visitors and Aboriginal landowners is almost impossible to represent accurately. “I certainly have no capacity to do so myself, but at least I can indicate something of the impossibility of the task through some strange drawings.”
The author also says that the term ‘magical realism’ is more fitting when describing Tan’s work, even though it’s a word more often used to describe writing.